The following is excerpted from My Death: A Personal Guidebook by Jeremy Kagan. In his book he describes his near-death experience where he transcends through experiences of peace into a personal hell and through to the other side of experiencing, understanding, and pure being itself. And eventually returning as a better version of himself with deeper perspective and full of awe at all that is.
I was with a high school buddy who told me that his greatest fear is dying and death. I wanted to comfort him. I thought if I shared my personal experience to that ‘undiscovered country,’ it could relieve some of his anxiety. And that is what I want to do for all those who read this. I’d like to make it easier to navigate where we all are headed.
Death is not the end of being.
First my body control was gone, losing all my senses, which put an end to my career, and now with communication gone, all human connections were severed. Finished.
Meister Eckhart the famed Christian mystic from the I4th century wrote: ‘Everything is meant to be lost, that the soul may stand in unhampered nothingness.” Maybe. But how about a little preparation for this? These were heavy losses. None of this was anticipated. Sweats are supposed to be challenges to your personal awareness, not threats to your very existence.
And then another question suddenly flashed before me. If this was all true, if this was what was really occurring, would I remain this way? And then the more frightening question jumped into my mind: What if I am dying?!
I examined what was so: I couldn’t feel anything, yes; but my mind was still conscious. And though I had no sight or hearing or communication abilities, I wondered if I hadn’t just felt or heard the presence of Michael near me. Was there the vague thought of hearing Michael ask: “Are you dead?” Did that happen? Was that real? What was real? Is this what dying is?
Previous to this, I had a variety of encounters that could have led to my . We all do. The causes of my almost deaths came from the essential elements.
Water. I had almost drowned when learning to swim at nine. I had dived into Aunt Pecha’s pool and cracked my head on the bottom of it. Relatives pulled me out. Another time, after college, taking a small sailboat out off of Martha’s Vineyard and not knowing how to maneuver it, I got caught in rough seas. The current took me away from shore as the sun was setting. The boat capsized and I ended up holding onto the rudder, as the ocean pulled the craft further away from the land. The sky turned red and the water darker and colder. I prayed for help, saying out loud: “God, save me.” But in my mind, I qualified my request: If you do help me, I am not sure I am going to change my ways. Talk about the arrogance of the damned! Wet. Cold. Weakened. Waiting. The movie Jaws hadn’t come out yet, so I wasn’t afraid of what was under the water. The sea and sky began to blacken. A large coast guard ship finally came to my rescue. That evening, back on shore outside in the rain, I made passionate love with my girlfriend. An ardent shout of physical presence. A grateful expression of being in a living body.
Earth. I was thrown from a horse, head first onto rocks and got knocked out for a few moments. There was my motorcycle crash at college, spilling me onto the ground and grinding my knee and hand into the gravel. Lots of blood. And there was movie shoot at night on a train in Alberta, Canada. We were filming on an old freight car and it came off its tracks and started to keel over on its side. I grabbed the young actress and jumped to the earth, running away just before the vehicle crashed.
Fire. There was the time my Avanti engine burst into flames. I jumped out and luckily a security guard had a fire extinguisher.
And as to Air, or the lack of it, it had almost ended me once as a result of the recommendation of a friend who was himself dying of liver disease. He had told me to try a liquefied mushroom. It was supposed to relax me, but it so slowed down my breathing, that in the middle of the night, I found myself gasping as if these were my last breaths. Even more troubling were two choking experiences. The first was at an Asian restaurant. While eating some spicy food, I suddenly couldn’t breathe. Someone from another table saved me with the Heimlich maneuver. He was a stranger. The same maneuver saved me a second time when I choked on a small raw carrot. I had tried to get air through my nose by pounding my chest against the back of a hard chair to force whatever was stuck out of my windpipe. The relative of my companion came up behind me and did the action that released the blockage and I breathed again. I told both helpers sincerely: “Thank you for saving my life? Saving a life. In Jewish ethics, they say if you save one life, it is as if you had saved the whole world, since each person is a microcosm of all that exists. My life had been saved by this gesture twice. I had not been killed by a carrot.
These were my brushes with ‘almost’ dying. Until now.
Are you dead?” Had I heard this? Whose voice was that? If I heard something then I wasn’t dead. Was I? Could I hear my breath? Was I still breathing? Was that Michael asking me whether I was ”still alive?” Whoever was saying this, if indeed it was being said, was there some humor in the voice? Was this hearing or imagining?
Humor and death.
My father used to laugh loudly with the undertakers when, as a clergy man, he visited their mortuaries. Part of his job was ministering funerals for his congregants. The morticians and he would tell jokes like the one about the three men who die in a car accident and at the gates of heaven are asked, When you are in the casket what would you like to hear about yourself?” The first one says, 1 want to hear that I was good at my business and a great family man: The second says, 1 want to hear I was a wonderful husband and a teacher who made a difference in children’s lives: And the third replies, 1 would like to hear them say, “LOOK, HE’S MOVING!!!”
But I wasn’t laughing or moving. I wasn’t capable of doing anything. My listening now was inside my head. Was someone encouraging me to “go into it and become the child and let go?” Did I hear something about experiencing whatever it was that I was feeling? What was I feeling? I was totally terrified. I wanted to scream. But there was no sound. I thought tears would flow, but I felt nothing in my eyes. I sensed my nose was running liquid, though I couldn’t really feel it. Then for a moment there was the hint of something I could feel, somewhere deep in my mouth. The feeling of my throat being completely dry and painfully scratchy, as if it had turned into gravel. My breath was like thick dust. My body seemed to be dissolving. It was becoming some kind of grainy mucous. My head was melting, transforming into sand like particles and merging with the earth that I was lying on. The outer world no longer existed for me. I felt my consciousness going inwards.
And then my mind told me that indeed, I was dying. This was the end. My end.
This wasn’t just an end of physical control, or career or relationships. This was the end of me! The fear was intensely real. I had no external sensations, but internally I was churning. I struggled to resist what was happening. I may have been told to let go, but I was not about to do it. With whatever inner strength I had, I was going to hold on. Hold on for dear life. For my life. And that is what I began to do. Hold on. I felt like I was tightening all that was left of my being. My inside was grasping at itself. My very cells were contracting. It was like holding my breath and at the same time purposely tightening all my muscles. Like rolling my body into a ball, and holding everything scrunched in until I felt like I was going to burst. But I held on.
I squeezed my internal energies refusing to give in, to give up, to lose, to die. I resisted with all my power to stay were I was. But I sensed 1 couldn’t keep doing it. I could tell I was running out of energy. My utmost wasn’t enough. I would have to let go. I didn’t want this to happen! Please, no.
N00000! N0000000!!! But…
1 couldn’t hold on any longer. I had spent my maximum effort to retain myself with every cellular or spiritual fiber left of my being. But it wasn’t enough. I was done. My power had run out. Exhausted. I was finished. Defeated. I gave up. I gave in. It was over.
Done. 1 came apart, letting go of what was me.
Meister Eckhart wrote that when you die, those who come for you can be seen in two ways. If you are willing to let go, they are angels. If you are holding on, they are devils trying to tear you away.
This final letting go, giving up, had an experience to it. Unexpected. It was like air released from an inflatable pillow. Like water gently overflowing a container. Like a sphere whose surface has somehow dissolved and everything within flows easily out in every direction.
And there was no pain. No pain at all. Just this smooth dissolution of being. It was remarkably soothing.
If you do the experiment of holding onto your breath and body as tightly and as long as possible and then you release • your breath and your body — the flow of energy is very palpable. It can be extremely pleasurable. What was happening to me in this dying was exponentially multiples of that kind of release. And it was tranquil.
It was peaceful.
A melting away.
A softening into total ease.
A gentle rapture.
An exquisite calm.
The ultimate ‘ahhhhh.’
This dying process was to my surprise so simple.
And it was absolutely wondrous.
BUT, There was more.
I realized after this perfect peaceful beautiful release, that I was still conscious. But of what? I was dead. And I was nowhere. But I was aware. I was completely at ease. Gracefully peaceful. No body. No needs. No anxiety. A sweet effortlessness. The ultimate relaxing into a wonderful time free stillness. Another Meister Eckhart observations is that the greatest obstacle to getting close to God is time. Think about it. Time focuses your concentration on what was or may about to be, but not on the eternal present. God is beyond time. But can we be beyond time? Well at this time, I was in no time.
And then, in this bliss, my mind kicked in again and it asked a new question: If this deliciousness is death and I am still conscious, what will happen next? Will there be a next? This very thought shifted the sublime tranquility.
And something new arose.
To learn more about the experience of passing through “hell” in near-death experiences, read Dr. Moody’s response to a reader’s question HERE.
Jeremy Kagan is an internationally recognized director, writer, and producer. He is currently a professor at the University of Southern California. He has won an Emmy for Dramatic Series Directing and has directed over thirty various dramatic episodes including West Wing. Via his Change Making Media Lab he has made dramatic, documentary and animated films for The Doe Fund which works with the homeless, for TreePeople and Bioneers; and CMML has won awards for videos on women’s health, ADHD and sustainability.
Professor Kagan served as the Artistic Director of Robert Redford’s Sundance Lab and has been on the National Board of the Directors Guild where he is Chairperson of its Special Projects. He is a Graduate Fellow of the American Film Institute, and has an MFA from NYU and a BA from Harvard University. He has taught master seminars on filmmaking across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Television Academy, The Writers Guild, and The Directors Guild.